Can the back-to-back SEC East champs do it again? As we continue our SEC season previews, time to take a look at the Missouri Tigers:
2014 record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC), beat Minnesota 33-17 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
Most important player: LT Connor McGovern. Protecting a quarterback’s blind side is of utmost importance, and McGovern is tasked with that this season, making the switch from the right side of the offensive line. McGovern, previously a right guard who also has played center and right tackle in his career, is freakishly strong (he completed five squat reps of 690 pounds earlier this summer) and quite athletic at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds. Making the transition from the right side to the left side is a challenge and how well McGovern tackles it while filling the shoes of departed left tackle Mitch Morse (who is now in the NFL and made a similar transition at Mizzou in 2014) will be a key factor for a Tigers offensive line that aims for improvement in 2015.
Breakout player: DE Charles Harris. The sophomore is lean on starting experience (one career start) but saw plenty of the field in 2014, appearing in all 14 games. The buzz around him this offseason has been consistently positive. For a program that’s accustomed to churning out elite pass-rushers, the 6-3, 255-pound Harris could be the next in line. With Shane Ray -- whom Harris backed up last season -- and Markus Golden now in the NFL, this is Harris’ time to shine.
Most important game: Oct. 17 at Georgia. Last season a 34-0 loss to the Bulldogs didn’t wind up costing Missouri a chance at a second consecutive SEC East title because the Tigers’ strong second-half finish secured the championship. And while it’s possible for it to happen again, it’s best not to have to worry about it. If the Tigers want a third consecutive division title, it serves them best to continue their impressive SEC road success (8-0 in SEC road games in the past two seasons) by going into Athens and knocking off the preseason SEC East favorite.
Biggest question mark: Receivers. The Tigers must replace the production that Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White offered, which was a combined 147 receptions. The top returning Missouri receivers are mostly unknown quantities: sophomore Nate Brown (five catches last season), senior Wesley Leftwich (three) and sophomore J'Mon Moore (two). Beyond those three, more young names are candidates to get into the mix, such as redshirt freshman DeSean Blair, Keyon Dilosa, Thomas Richard or Raymond Wingo. True freshmen could be among the candidate pool too, such as four-star prospect Richaud Floyd or three-star signees Emanuel Hall, Jonathon Johnson or Justin Smith.
Class of 2015 signee to watch: There is absolutely no doubt that five-star defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. will be the player to watch for Missouri. The No. 1-ranked defensive tackle in the 2015 ESPN 300 is the highest-rated recruit since wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham signed with the Tigers in their 2012 recruiting class. Defensive tackle is a very difficult position to make an impact as a true freshman -- especially in the SEC -- but at 6-4, 298 pounds, Beckner is already physically ready to stand up to the rigors of the SEC. His presence might not be as noticeable early on in the year, but if Beckner can stay healthy, look for the talented defensive lineman to come on toward the end of his first year. -- Derek Tyson
Class of 2016 storyline: Missouri has gotten off to a bit of a slower start with only 13 commitments currently. The Tigers, however, have received all 13 commits since the beginning of April and are ending summer with some positive momentum. As it stands, none of Missouri’s commits ranks higher than three stars. While number of stars by a recruit’s name has never really mattered to coach Gary Pinkel, he would still like to add a few more impact players to this class. Look for the Tigers to continue to dip into Georgia, Texas and Florida to find some athletes to finish out the class. The highest-rated of the Missouri commits, defensive end Tre Williams (6-4, 224-pounds), has the makings to be the next in a long line of top defensive linemen produced by the Tigers. -- Derek Tyson
Best-case scenario: Already armed with a quality running game and a lot of experience on the back end of the defense, the Tigers need a few things to fall into place. If the offensive line is consistent, the defensive line maintains its usual level, they reload at receiver, and quarterback Maty Mauk takes a step forward this season, the Tigers should be in line for a third consecutive SEC East title and another 10-plus win season. The schedule is manageable and Gary Pinkel & Co. have proved they have what it takes get it done. Even though Mizzou isn’t being picked to win the division, it’s quite possible the Tigers could do it again.
Worst-case scenario: If those pieces don’t come together -- particularly on the offensive line with McGovern’s transition to the left side, and if the lack of experience on the defensive line becomes an issue and Mauk doesn’t make a significant improvement on his 53.4 percent completion rate of 2014 -- then things could get sticky. The schedule gets more challenging in the second half of the season, especially if alleged SEC "teams on the rise" Tennessee and Arkansas truly do take big steps forward this season (those are two teams Mizzou defeated in 2014). If the Tigers fall at Georgia and can’t sufficiently answer some of the question marks mentioned above, a four-loss season and a finish in the middle of the SEC East is possible.
2015 prediction: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)